Labor Senator Doug Cameron says the Gillard government has moved too far to the right on asylum seeker policy, and risks creating a new underclass by denying refugees the right to work while they await permanent visas.
Senator Cameron, a convener of Labor's Left faction, was responding to the announcement by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Wednesday to extend the no-advantage test to asylum seekers whose claims are processed onshore.
Will tougher border measures work?
Meet some of Australia's highest paid executives
Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year finalists
BHP's staggering loss explained
Does your life insurance cover you?
'Reclaim Australia' linked Victorian man charged with terror offences
Cyclists v high-vis: the great debate
Rockmelon salmonella warning
Will tougher border measures work?
Doubts remain about whether the governments tougher new visa measures can stop asylum problem running out of control.
They will be denied permanent protection visas for as long as five years even if they are found to be genuine refugees and regardless of whether their claims are processed in Australia, Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Asylum seekers allowed into the community on bridging visas will have no work rights and only limited accommodation and financial support.
Senator Cameron said he was concerned that asylum seekers would be reliant upon charity to survive in the community.
''I don't want people to come here and starve,'' Senator Cameron told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
''I don't want an underclass to be created in Australia.''
Senator Cameron said he did not think it was possible to stop boat arrivals.
''I don't think there's any capacity anywhere to stop the boats, full stop. We have to make sure the policies that we put in place are humane policies,'' he said.
''The political debate on refugees is at its lowest ebb and my view is we should try and get above that.
''The Labor Party is a party that has had a long history of supporting refugees. I don't want this government to end up going further and further to the right on refugee issues.''
Senator Cameron predicted there would be a robust debate about the policy when the Labor caucus meets on Tuesday during the final parliamentary sitting week of the year.
''Those policies are entitled to be subject to scrutiny from the back bench and critical analysis from the back bench,'' he said.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told a breakfast function in Perth on Thursday that the Coalition was concerned that asylum seekers on bridging visas would live unproductive lives on welfare. Mr Abbott said that he would be making an announcement to "rectify" the visas in coming days.
‘‘These people [asylum seekers] will get Australian citizenship with the worst possible preparation - five years on welfare - for life in Australia,’’ Mr Abbott said.
‘‘Now I’ll be making further announcements about what the coalition will be doing to rectify this situation in coming days.
Mr Abbott said that "no credible country" subcontracted part of its immigration program out to people smugglers.
Interviewed on ABC radio this morning, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen defended the policy to deny holders of bridging visas work rights. He said it was a matter of consistent treatment, because asylum seekers held on Nauru and Manus Island could not work.
He also said the policy made a journey to Australia less attractive for people who wanted to come for economic reasons.
''You can find people smugglers out there saying 'look we'll get you to Australia, you may or may not be a refugee, you'll be able to work, you'll make more money that you ever would here in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, and you can send that money home... economically it's in your interests to move'.''
Mr Bowen said Labor's approach was aimed at deterring people from risking their lives by taking perilous boat journeys to Australia.
''We are doing everything that is possible to try and deter people coming by boat. If people are arguing that we shouldn't be doing that, then they need to accept the ramifications of that, which is that they are effectively saying 'we accept that more people will drown at sea', and I don't think that's a morally sustainable position,'' he said.
''There are tough decisions to be made. I don't enjoy making them. That's my job.''
Coalition border protection spokesman Michael Keenan says Labor's immigration policies were failing because it had not adopted the full range of measures used by the Howard government.
Mr Keenan rejected the suggestion that Labor had put in place the Coalition's approach.
''They've adopted one component of it and that is offshore processing, and they've been dragged kicking and screaming to do that,'' he said on Sky News.
''What we have always said is that the whole suite of policies that the Howard government used to stop people smuggling needs to be returned. That is offshore processing on Nauru and Manus, but very importantly in conjunction with the return of temporary protection visas and turning the boats back around when it's safe and appropriate to do so.''
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, acknowledged that public opinion seemed to support the tough policies pursued by both major parties, but she said Labor's policies ''run the risk of being in serious breach of international law''.
David Manne, the executive director of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre, said Labor's policies would effectively punish thousands of people.
''The very people that we're meant to be protecting, are going to be put into the community into a situation where they face limbo without limits, and also the real risk of destitution without work rights,'' he told Sky News.
''It's a real concern that we're revisiting the type of policy which we know harms innocent people fleeing from harm.''
St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive Dr John Falzon expressed sadness today over the government’s announcement that it would be leaving refugees on bridging visas with no right to work and very little support:
“We condemn this latest chapter in the chronicle of inhumane treatment of refugees by successive governments,'' Dr Falzon said.
“It is time for Australia to accept its international obligations and to respect the human rights and human dignity of the people who seek asylum in our country.
“People should not be forced into a life of poverty and insecurity. The current suite of policies will go down in history as a form of degradation instead of being the product of careful deliberation.”